About a year ago now I started working on the “Ratfist” flash game, based on the Doug TenNapel comic strip of the same name. As an artist, he’d been largely off my radar for quite a long time even though I still popped Earthworm Jim in the ol’ SNES machine and gave it a go on a regular basis. But ever since then I’ve been following his goings-on on a regular basis. Twitter, Facebook, some of his other works, and most recently his new webcomic Nnewts. I’ve been reading it for a variety of reasons, a significant one being his insights and musings at the bottom of every page. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but I respect his opinions as an artist and a fellow human being.
But one thing that its definitely got me thinking about is… “why do I create art?” Well, the most obvious reason is that I just love creating. Sitting down and making something appear out of nothing is one of the most fulfilling experiences you can have as a person. Something that is inherently yours, and nobody else’s. There are other reasons that seemed to pop up out of the woodwork the more I thought about them. Things that made me go “yeah, yeah I do always do that when I draw, don’t I?” One of the biggest reasons is that I find art to be very therapeutic.
I draw a lot of comics, a lot of art that is, on the surface, very impersonal. I’ve gone on ad nauseum about how all I want to do is tell an interesting story. Usually these stories don’t have anything to do with my personal experiences or beliefs, just tales that interest me that I want to commit to a page. Even though I’m drawing things with a total disconnect to reality, my brain is running a mile a minute.
There’s a commitment to the page. I’m focused on what I’m making, but the whole time my brain is thinking its way through a personal problem. I’m almost always thinking about a dilemma, pondering the future, something else while never pulling too many mental resources away from the task at hand. Music oftentimes helps this process for me. Art is therapeutic for me, as a tool for organizing my thoughts. I can still look back at old archives of comic pages and say “yeah, that was a rough time for me. I was thinking about [insert pseudo-crisis here] when I drew that. Similar how I can look at doodles on a piece of notebook paper and remember the class lecture that I sat through when I made it, my art serves as mental post-its for my problems.
Sometimes though, problems are too big to draw through. Or so I thought.
August has been a particularly rough month for me. One of my closest friends, who means the world to me, has been going through some very difficult times, and it’s hard to see anyone go through such an ordeal, especially when you can’t be there to help. Things only get more complicated when you realize that you personally have no power to change anything.
It’s not any stretch of the truth to say that I have a highly active imagination. It also wouldn’t be a stretch to say that I’m a pessimist. While most of the time I’ve found the combination useful in keeping me out of trouble or preventing me from taking certain kinds of stupid risks, it’s the absolute worst when it comes to situations like these. My brain always jumps ahead to the worst possible solution… what happens if you lose that person?
What do you do?
I’ve not a person accustomed to loss. I’ve buried three grandparents, and each time I was crushed. I don’t think any sane human being wants to get good at dealing with loss. I’m inclined to think that I’m even less equipped to deal with it than most, because I’ve had, with little padding of the phrase, a pretty comfortable, easy life. I’ve been very fortunate, and I’m eternally thankful for it.
But I don’t lose easily. Even in games, I take losing very personally, even if it’s not. There’s always the nagging thought at the back of the mind that I could have done something differently, taken an alternate approach, or done anything in my power to affect an outcome where I don’t come out on top. It’s not a good approach to have when dealing with important life events.
It’d be easier, I think, to deal with if there was somewhere that I could place direct blame. Like a person. I’d find that much easier to cope with. It would still hurt a lot, but humanity is very good at pointing fingers. We yearn for it. We’re a species that excels at holding grudges. Humanity’s capacity to hate, my own included, is far greater than I am comfortable admitting. Hate is something I can understand, wrap my head around. That’s probably why it features so strongly in a lot of my work as a central thing. We can all relate to it. Love is more complex, yet more rewarding as a result.
When something like this happens, you feel cheated. I did, at least. Like, none of the promises we made and questions we posited to each other mattered. They felt like words spewed into the air without purpose or direction. The friendship you spent years building up and strengthening torn down through no fault of your own. I lost, and some other force was the winner. Sometimes you don’t get second chances. Only time will tell.
I resisted the temptation to try and work out this particular problem through art. I think a part of me wanted to just pretend it wasn’t happening like some grade school brat with his fingers in his ears shouting “I CAN’T HEAR YOU” as loud as he could at whatever was nearby. But eventually, at the goading of friends, I sat down and tried to work it out.
Pearls was the first, and in fact only, subject that came to mind for me to draw.
Pearls is a story that evolved quite a bit from its original position. It’s a story about trying to find love, failing, and trying again. While I’ve tweaked things and altered things to make the story compelling and interesting, at its very core, Pearls is a story about my life. I have a hard time admitting it, but before it evolved into what it is today, the story was created and pitched to impress someone. Show them that there was more to my art than mindless violence and action scenes. Something cute and profound. It was less a desire to expand my horizons and more an attempt to prove simply that I could, and had chosen not to.
The story took me new places with my art, and as it evolved I did too. I began to see the merit in different types of storytelling; wholly different approaches than anything I had attempted so far. By the time Pearls was done, I’d become reacquainted with an entire genre of stories that I’d written off as childish and immature. I embraced my youth. I’ve had a hard time going back to the stories that I used to tell, even though the desire is always in the back of my mind to tell something aimed at adults and people with thicker stomachs.
Pearls is an autobiography. I am Crabby. It’s a very literal story about me trying to trying to impress a girl and feeling like I’ve failed. At the same time, I am also Crabapples, trying to impress a girl by being tough and overly forward, and failing. The Pearl is the story itself, an item that was supposed to be a gift, but a future presents itself even without it. Crabapples isn’t a bad guy, he’s just misunderstood. The elusive Ladycrab remains an enigma; as I purposefully didn’t want to show how her relationship with Crabby turned out, because at the time when I was writing the storyboards, I didn’t know myself.
Time has passed, circumstances have changed. Decisions have been made, and paths ended up diverging in different directions. But we’ll always been friends, and we’ve had our ups and downs like everyone else in the world. But no matter where our lives take us, I’ll always remember what she’s done for me.
My art has been massively impacted by Pearls. My career, my awards, my very method for creating new content owes its existence to that film. Pearls wouldn’t exist without the backbone of the story to support it. Pearls wouldn’t exist without prodding from a girl to make something not-violent. My current approach to storytelling, to illustration as a whole would be different, and I think that it would be worse.
I tried to capture these feelings in the piece above, just one of many quick sketches I did as I blasted through paper trying to work out my feelings. I did maybe 30 short illustrations, each one reiterating on the theme of Pearls without Ladycrab; Crabby sitting on the beach, a pearl with no purpose.
This post has been long… and a bit rambling, but it goes hand in hand with the message. Thinking while I draw is therapeutic for me; organizing those thoughts onto the page is just as therapeutic and helpful. Even if nobody reads this far, I feel like I’m in a better place as a result, where I understand what’s going on in my head. A hopeful place, where everything is going to turn out alright, and we can bounce story ideas off each other for decades to come.